Tenants: Beware and Negotiate

In a matter of first impression before the Texas Supreme Court, the Court ruled that a Residential Lease provision that obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault” was not void and unenforceable.

The background facts:  A young lady, Carmen White, got her first apartment and signed a standard Texas Apartment Association (“TAA”) lease.  Her parents gave her a washer and dryer set as a gift.  While using the dryer, it caught fire and burned her apartment and others nearby.  The damages to the apartment complex exceeded $83,000.00.  The source of the ignition was unknown and no fault was placed on White or the Landlord.  The landlord’s insurance company paid the claim, subrogated, and demanded reimbursement from Ms. White.  When she refused to pay the insurance company brought suit against her. 

The Procedural facts:  The case was tried to a jury.  After trial, the jury answered “no” to a question asking if White’s negligence proximately caused the fire.  However, the jury answered “yes” to the question whether White breached the lease agreement by failing to pay the casualty loss.  The jury awarded the landlord $93,498.00 in damages.  White moved for judgment not withstanding the verdict which was granted and the trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling holding that that the Reimbursement Provision was void as against public policy.  The Appeals Court found a fatal conflict between the Reimbursement Provision’s broad language and Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code restricting a Landlord’s ability to contractually allocate repair responsibilities.

The Supreme Court ruling:  The Supreme Court was to determine, as a matter of first impression, whether public policy embodied in the Texas Property Code precludes enforcement of a residential lease provision imposing liability on a tenant for property losses resulting from “any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault”.  In so holding the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) repeatedly stated the well known legal axiom that “Parties in Texas may contract as they wish, so long as the agreement does not violate the law or offend public policy, recognizing the the Legislature has limited the freedom of a landlord and tenant to contractually allocate responsibility for repairs materially affecting health and safety.  Interestingly in footnote 4, the court acknowledged that above the signature block, the lease prominently states that the lease can be modified by agreement of the parties, but neither party requested modifications to the Reimbursement Provision. 

The Lease contained a reimbursement provision standard in the TAA lease which obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault”.

As we all know it is almost impossible to get a Landlord to revise any provision in a standard form lease, but if you are to avoid the tragedy that happened to Ms. White, you must negotiate a modification of the Lease.

Be aware that the TAA Lease is a legal document and forms a binding contract.  You should consult an attorney for help revising the Lease. 

We would first add a sentence to Section 10, Special Provisions.  We would write in the blanks a sentence to limit my liability.  For instance, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, Tenant shall never be responsible for repair, or liable for damages to Landlord’s property, including other units in the complex, unless such damage is proximately caused by the negligence of Tenant, Tenant’s guests, or invitees.”

Secondly, we would strike out certain language contained in Section 12. We would strike out “or any other cause not due to our negligence or fault”, at the end of the first sentence of Section 12.

We firmly believe that no residential Tenant should be held responsible to repair other units damaged or for property losses “resulting from any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault.”  Do not let this happen to you.

Buying a New Company:  Conducting Due Diligence

Depending on the nature and size of the business you’re interested in buying, the process of completing due diligence can be straightforward or complex. Fortunately, the basic steps you’ll need to follow are rather standard.

After your lawyer has negotiated a Letter of Intent (LOI) with the seller –  covering each party’s duties and responsibilities involving confidentiality, exclusivity and other matters – you’ll be ready to begin the due diligence phase of possibly buying the company.

The Main Reasons for Performing Financial Due Diligence

This process is partially designed to help determine if the initial evaluation placed on the business is fair and if the company is both stable and viable. Time must also be set aside to review all current contracts and potential legal and regulatory liabilities.

Some of the specific aspects of the business you’ll want your Houston business law attorney and personal accountants to carefully review and examine are set forth below.

  • All accounts receivable and payable
  • At least the last three years of the company’s tax filings
  • All current payroll obligations
  • Most or all the major banking transactions for the past year or more
  • The full nature and extent of any outstanding loans on the books

As this initial list of matters indicates, this process can take many months with some businesses. Normally, the parties negotiate the timetable for completing all due diligence examinations in their Letter of Intent (LOI).

Special Inquiries You Must Include Regarding Other Financial Matters

Hopefully, your review of all the financial accounts won’t turn up any troubling questions that can’t be answered. However, since a small percentage of business sellers may be dishonest, your due diligence team must carefully watch out for certain types of “red flags” or irregularities. These can include some of the following concerns.

  • Missing funds
  • References to non-existing accounts
  • Improperly filed tax returns
  • A varying degree of bad debt that’s regularly written off
  • Unstable profit margins

Your lawyer’s due diligence inquiry must also include carefully reviewing all current contracts with other businesses or corporations.

Key Concerns Involving Executory Contracts

  • When are they each due to expire? (This is important since this information can affect the company’s current valuation and other issues). For example, if current supplier contracts are ending soon, you may soon find yourself having to pay far more for critical supplies;
  • What’s the status of all customer contracts? You need to be sure all funds owed to the company are being collected regularly and all goods and services promised are being delivered in a timely manner. Failure to carefully monitor all contract terms can cost you valuable customers and open you up to major legal liabilities;
  • Are all Service contracts being carefully monitored? Nearly every business is dependent on outside service vendors to keep their manufacturing and other equipment working properly. Likewise, contracts are often in place to secure the professional services of lawyers, accountants, computer repair technicians and others. You must make sure the company is properly honoring all these contracts and renegotiating them in a timely and responsible manner;
  • Are all current leases being properly maintained? Companies can’t afford to accidentally let leases lapse on buildings or other property that are essential to their daily operations.
  • Employee Agreements? Do current employees have employment agreements with non-compete clauses? These must be carefully examined because they cannot be assigned if you are only buying the assets.

Due diligence can also extend beyond merely reviewing key financial documents and contracts. It should also include a detailed review of all actual or threatened litigation and regulatory investigations.

Your Lawyers Must Review All Current or Likely Lawsuits & Regulatory Challenges

Each of the following issues must be examined regarding all current or anticipated litigation. They may prove crucial if you decide to still buy a specific company since you’ll probably need to request contractual indemnity for all future liability (and litigation expenses).

  • How costly might each case eventually prove to be? In other words, what potential liabilities are involved?
  • Has the business received formal notice that any of its operations may be operating in conflict with any state or federal statutes or regulations?

You must be willing to sit down with your lawyer and the target company’s current legal counsel to sort through all these legal and regulatory concerns since they directly bear on the business’ current valuation and the wisdom or folly of buying it.

While the due diligence concerns referenced above are not intended to be fully comprehensive, they should help you understand many of the critical matters that must be examined. Once you make it through this due diligence stage, you can then either decline to buy the company or move forward into the “closing” or final transactions phase.

Please feel free to contact our law office so we can help guide you through the various stages of due diligence as you try to decide whether you should buy a specific company.

Choosing Reputable Charities for Your Texas Estate Plan

Many Americans now name one or more charities in their Wills or other estate planning documents to help these important cultural and humanitarian groups maintain adequate funding. However, others less familiar with charitable giving need to understand that, before arranging these types of gifts, they must carefully evaluate each charity or non-profit group to be sure their funds will be shared properly. 

Fortunately, there are several reputable organizations that will readily help consumers decide which charitable or non-profit groups are properly using all their donations while minimizing administrative costs. These same “watchdog” groups often urge all charitable groups to maintain open donation and expenditure records. In addition, our Texas Attorney General’s Office has put together some useful tips that can help all of us do a better job of deciding which charities will be the most responsible recipients of our testamentary gifts.

Here’s a list of basic tips that can help all of us better evaluate all non-profits and charities. That information is followed by a list of different websites and groups dedicated to providing consumers with current news about charitable activities. Of course, it’s always best to start your search by first visiting with your Houston estate planning attorney who may already know about the reputations of many charitable organizations.

Important Information to Obtain While Choosing Charities to Include in Your Estate Plan

  • First, be sure to obtain the full legal name of each group, its address and telephone number. Next, ask if the IRS has formally recognized it as a public charity that’s tax exempt. Then, ask if your donations will all be fully tax deductible.
  • Find out how long the non-profit or charity (hereinafter just referenced as ‘charity’) has been in existence.  While longevity doesn’t always ensure completely honest and frugal management of funds, it does mean that it should be easier to research the group’s reputation by visiting several of the online sources named below.
  • Request a recent annual report that clearly indicates how much money the group spends on administrative costs and how much of every donated dollar will directly benefit those the charity is seeking to help.
  • Find out if the charity’s main goals are related to education, medical services, scientific and medical research – or perhaps providing scholarships to those pursuing careers in specific vocational fields.
  • Do not give the group any of your private bank account or credit card information during your investigative calls – although it’s best to be honest about your intentions. Also, if you’re not ready to receive numerous emails or letters to your home address, avoid giving that type of information out right now.

Be sure to ask members of your professional or business circles if any of them have had positive experiences with the charities that interest you the most. When any charity has a publicly named board of directors, consider contacting those individuals directly by phone to ask them about their experiences with handling tasks on behalf of the charity.

When you’re ready, start visiting some of the websites set forth below to see what you can find out about each of the charities that seem to be highly reputable.

Online Websites Offering Detailed Information About Various Charities

  • Give.org. This website includes the sub-title, “BBB Wise Giving Alliance.” On its page dedicated to donors, it states that you can look up information about each charity’s effectiveness, governance, finances – and current brochures or other materials available to the public.
  • The American Institute of Philanthropy (Charity Watch). Among its various offerings, this website offers a list of charitable groups involved with some highly specific causes and issues.
  • Guidestar. This online resource offers a wide array of information about many reputable non-profit groups.
  • Charity Navigator. Like the other websites already named above, this one offers timely information about many charities. It also provides a “hot topics” link that will tell you more about charities currently in the news for one reason or another.

All four of the oversight groups listed above are noted on the Texas Attorney General website. You can also find out additional information about specific charities by visiting this Consumer Reports page.

If you haven’t already thought about giving to a charity or non-profit when you pass away, please consider doing so now.  All Texans need to do a bit more to help others so our state can become more compassionate — and improve our current ranking for charitable giving.

Please feel free to contact our firm so we can explain some of the best ways to include charities as beneficiaries in your estate plan. There are specific legal ways of handling this task so that your estate will reap the best tax advantages available.

Voters To Determine Whether Texas Changes Home Equity Lending Laws

Now that the Texas House and Senate have approved SJR 60 and its companion bill HJR 99, Texans must decide in November whether we should amend our state constitution’s home equity law provisions. Any changes to the state constitution require a voter-approved amendment. The proposed changes may benefit many borrowers and they would remove a prohibition that currently prevents agricultural homestead owners from seeking home equity loans.

Additional Changes Addressed by SJR 60/HJR 99

This joint bill is designed to accomplish several goals. One key objective is to lower the current three percent cap on fees that can be charged to borrowers initiating a home equity loan down to only a two percent cap. To achieve this change, the bill separates out from the cap such fees as property surveys, appraisals, title exam reports and state base premiums. This change is designed to help low-income borrowers and those needing loans in more rural areas.

This means that borrowers seeking home equity loans under $50,000 might currently see those added fees go over the three percent cap. However, if the cap is lowered and the other changes noted above are made, those same borrowers could probably avoid that problem. This proposed amendment would also increase the present loan-to-value ratio up to 80 percent (from its current level of 50%) on home equity lines of credit.

Consumers may also benefit from a new provision allowing them to refinance home equity loans that have already existed for at least one year. They could turn such loans into traditional mortgages if all required conditions are met. Those who wish to make these types of changes would be owed new disclosures clearly outlining the potential benefits that might be lost by making this change. Special time deadlines would also have to be met, making sure that each consumer clearly understands the full impact of converting the loan into a traditional mortgage well before the refinance closing date.

Recent Legislative History Regarding This Joint Bill

Back in 2015, Representative Richard Raymond of Laredo proposed a bill that addressed the three percent fee cap issue by removing specific third-party expenses from the cap. Although that bill failed to pass, it did raise awareness of these important issues.

Meeting Constitutional Change Requirements and Putting Matters to a Vote

The passage of these joint bills required a two-thirds majority vote in both the Texas House and Senate. Now that requirement has been met, it’s time to put this matter on the ballot so voters can make the final decision on November 7, 2017. Should Texas voters approve this amendment, the changes to our state constitution will take effect on January 1, 2018.

Should you have any questions about how you should initiate financing for your home or other purchases, please contact our office and allow us the privilege of helping you. We can also answer any other questions you might have about various contracts and lending practices.